Orange County proto-punkers the Vandals haven’t had a new member since 1989. Joe Escalante joined shortly after the band formed in 1980.
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“If you told me back then I’d still be playing in my 50s I would have thought that would be undignified and embarrassing,” says Escalante, who started with the Vandals as a drummer and switched to bass. “It’s kinda turned into a decent business where old bands can play with new bands. It’s a lot more dignified.”
While not as big as Social Distortion or Bad Religion, the Vandals were certainly part of the early-’80s SoCal punk onslaught. All four members have day-jobs. They haven’t released a new album since 2003 but they gladly replay their early punk hits.
“I think we first played San Diego in 1982 at Wabash Hall. After we had our first big radio hit on 91X we opened for the Stranglers at Adams Avenue Theatre. Those are the early days of our shows with bands like Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, and Angry Samoans. Most were promoted by Tim Mays.”
The Vandals - "And Now We Dance" (Live in Iraq)
That first big hit was “Urban Struggle,” the punk anthem that railed against wannabe ranch-hand posers who “listened to cowboy tunes and stomped around like a bunch of goons.”
For 35 years I’ve wanted to know if that song that ended with the line “I couldn’t make it as a punker” was actually a slag against local '70s punk pioneers the Dils who became the cowpunk band Rank and File.
It was not. “We knew the Dils but we didn’t even know they had changed their style when we wrote that tune. At the time we never even knew there was such a thing as cowpunk.”
Escalante says the song was inspired by the abuse endured by patrons of Costa Mesa punk mecca Cuckoo’s Nest by the cowboy posers who frequented the next-door cowboy bar named Zubies.
“In high school we were plagued by hippies. They hated our music and there were fist fights every day at school.... And then at the Cuckoo’s Nest we were always called ‘punk faggot’ in the parking lot and a fist fight would always break out. The cops were always on the side of the cowboys. In their mind the cowboys were preserving American society and the punks were trying to destroy it.”
One of the Vandals songs was "The Legend of Pat Brown,” about a Vandals fan who Escalante says ran over a couple of cops. “He went to jail and was pretty badly beaten in the head. He was never the same.... Back then if you were a punk in high school you ate lunch by yourself and you’d have food thrown at you. You knew you would never get a cute girlfriend. Today if you’re a punk rocker you eat lunch with the cheerleaders.”
Old punkers are getting new work.
“We’re playing a cruise ship with the Offspring and the Buzzcocks that leaves Miami in April. We turned it down three years in a row. But the money [offers] got better each year. We finally said, ‘Okay.’”
Escalante writes for TV shows like History Channel's Ancient Aliens, singer Dave Quackenbush owns a liquor-distribution company, drummer Josh Freese is a professional drummer now finishing a European tour with Sting, and guitarist Warren Fitzgerald writes for film and TV.